If you've ever watched a television court show, then you've probably heard of first-, second-, and third-degree burglaries. In some states, there is such a thing as fourth-degree burglary. In the eyes of the law, the degree indicates the severity of the burglary--a first-degree burglary, for example, is more severe than a third-degree burglary and, as a result, the punishment for a first-degree burglary is more severe than the punishment for a second-, third- or fourth-degree burglary.
Burglary itself is defined as entering a building without permission to commit a crime. Whether it's theft, vandalism or physical harm, the nature of the crime does not matter-- rather, it is the intent to commit a crime that results in a burglary charge. The details of the burglary then determine the degree of the crime. First-degree burglary is the most serious of the degrees, and fourth-degree burglary is the least severe. To truly understand the definition of fourth-degree burglary, you should also understand the other degrees of the crime.
First- and Second-Degree Burglary
Most states rely upon intent to determine the degree of a burglary, or breaking and entering, charge. If you use force and/or weapons to burglarize an inhabited building (in this case, inhabited simply means that a person lives or works in the building--it does not indicate whether or not the person was present during the burglary), then the law assumes that you intended to commit a violent crime or theft. As a result, you will most likely be charged with first-degree burglary. If you use force and/or weapons to enter an uninhabited building (meaning the building is vacant and no one lives or works there), then the law once again assumes that you intended to commit theft or a crime of violence. However, because the building was uninhabited, the charge becomes second-degree burglary.
Third- and Fourth-Degree Burglary
If you break into an inhabited building with no force and/or weapons, then you will most likely be charged with third-degree burglary--regardless of the type of crime you planned to commit. And finally, if you simply intend to break into a building, then you can be found guilty of fourth-degree burglary. You do not have to actually commit a burglary--you simply have to intend to commit a burglary. This means that if, for example, you're found in your neighbor's yard with a burglar's tool, you can be charged with fourth-degree burglary---even if you have not attempted to break into the person's home.
Often regarded as an "umbrella" charge (meaning it can be used to cover a variety of actions), burglary in the fourth degree is a relatively uncommon charge and is not an option in many states. Many legal experts have criticized the charge, arguing that a person should only be charged with burglary if the crime is actually committed. In 2004, a Baltimore court reversed a previous charge and ruled fourth-degree burglary "a nonexistent crime."
Although fourth-degree burglary is the least severe type of burglary, it is still considered a felony in those states that have fourth-degree burglary on the books. In these areas, a conviction of burglary in the fourth degree carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.